Enforcement measures regarding borderline productsPosted: October 14, 2016 | |
As observed in an earlier post, the boundaries between food products and medicinal products are sometimes blurred. However, the qualification of a product as either one or the other may have huge regulatory consequences. In recent litigation in several Dutch Courts the Hecht-Pharma decision from the EU Court of Justice (ECJ) was applied. This series of cases is of interest for food business operators, as it provides a clear message regarding enforcement measures directed against borderline products. The national health authorities should strike a fair balance between the free movement of goods and the optimal protection of public health. Whereas enforcement policies re. borderline products constituting a threat to public health may be justified, this does not entail that each and every food product containing a substance with a physiological effect automatically qualifies as a medicinal product by function.
The facts of the case Hecht-Pharma related to a food supplement with fermented rice that Hecht-Pharma had been marketing in Germany under the name “Red Rice”. The recommendations for use read “as food supplement, 1 capsule, 1 – 3 times a day”. The German authorities had qualified this product as a medicinal product by function, but Hecht-Pharma did not agree. It argued that having regard to the recommended dose, the product at stake could not exert a pharmacological action.
Medicinal product by function
In its request for a preliminary ruling, the Federal Administrative Court aimed to clarify if, after a change of the Medicinal Products Directive, criteria previously developed to establish if a product qualified as a medicinal product by function, still applied. Qualification as a product as a medicinal product by function implies that it is aimed at a change in physiological functions by exerting a pharmacological, immunological or metabolic action. The ECJ confirmed in its Hecht-Pharma decision that previously developed criteria were still in place. As a result, the national authorities must decide on a case-by-case basis, taking into account all the characteristics of the product at stake, in particular its composition and pharmacological properties, the manner in which it is used, the extent of its distribution, its familiarity to consumers and the risks which its use may entail when they decide if a product qualifies as a medicinal product by function. Clearly, a product cannot be regarded as such, when it is incapable of appreciably restoring, correcting or modifying physiological functions in human beings.
The Dutch Court cases related to melatonin-based products, marketed by a number of companies represented by the Dutch foods supplements association NPN (Natuur- en Gezondheidsproducten Nederland). During the period between 2011 and 2014, The Dutch Health Inspectorate (IGZ) and the Dutch Food Safety Authority (NVWA) on the one hand and NPN on the other hand, corresponded on the topic of melatonin-based products. The Dutch authorities thereby took the view that they considered products containing 0,3 mg melatonin or more to be a medicinal product by function. They based their view on literature studies, from which it would follow that a single oral dose of 0,3 mg melatonin produced a pharmacological effect on humans. In view of their public role of safeguarding public health, the authorities intended to launch enforcement measures regarding products containing more than 0,3 mg melatonin, unless the manufacturer at stake had applied for an authorization to market these products as medicinal products.
Enforcement measures and subsequent summary proceedings
Early 2015, IGZ sent a letter to all Dutch manufacturers of melatonin-based products informing that they would require a market authorization for continued marketing of products containing 0.3 mg melatonin or more. Each such manufacturer should inform the authorities prior to 15 March 2015 for which melatonin-based products it would or it had already applied for such authorization, failing which enforcement measures could follow. NGN subsequently initiated summary relief proceedings, claiming inter alia that IGZ should refrain from enforcement measures, unless it had demonstrated with respect to each and every melatonin-based product that it qualified as a medicinal product according to applicable legal criteria as validated in case law. In these proceedings, NPN claimed that IGZ had not sufficiently demonstrated, based on scientific evidence, that products containing 0,3 mg melatonin or more could change physiological functions in the human body, for instance by a pharmacological effect. Furthermore NGN argued that IGZ had neglected to apply the criteria developed in Hecht-Pharma, according to which IGZ should have established with respect to each melatonin-based product that it qualified as a medicinal product, thereby taking into account all relevant circumstances. According to NPN, these products were food supplements, not medicinal products.
Evaluation by the Court in summary proceedings
Based on a very broad interpretation of the definition of medicinal product, as contained in article 1.2 of the Medicinal Products Directive, NGN’s claim was dismissed. According to the Court, assessment of each individual product could be done by the Dutch Medicines Evaluation Board or by EMA, upon filing of an application for marketing authorization. It was not necessary for IGZ to proceed to this evaluation at an earlier stage, as the chances that any deviations from the general conclusion would be found, were considered very small. The Court did consider however that IGZ’s communication and application of enforcement measures had not been unambiguous. Even if the manufacturers of the melatonin-based products followed the request to indicate by 15 March 2015 for which products they filed an application for marketing authorization, it would not be clear by when they would know if IGZ – pending such application – would refrain from enforcement measures. This created uncertainty in the market and was considered unlawful vis-à-vis NGN. The Court therefore ordered IGZ to set a term after 15 March 2015 during which the products for which a market authorization had been requested would be tolerated.
Decision reversed on appeal in summary proceedings
On appeal, the discussion was focused on the correct application of Hecht-Pharma. Contrary to the Court in first instance, the Appeal Court held that a public health authority announcing enforcement measures should at that very moment motivate why a product containing > 0,3 mg melatonin qualifies as a medicinal product. A different approach could create unjust market restrictions, for instance regarding products that upon application were not considered medicinal products. Moreover, the requirement to file a market authorization for each and any melatonin-based product containing > 0,3 mg melatonin is not just a formality, but would oblige manufacturers of this type of products to make an important investment in time and resources. Taking into account there were no acute health issues for the continued marketing of melatonin-based products, at least not for those containing a maximum up to 5 mg melatonin, the Appeal Court ordered that public health authorities should apply all criteria developed in Hecht-Pharma when considering enforcement measures against borderline products.
Confirmation in proceedings on the merits
This summer, the District Court of The Hague confirmed in a decision on the merits the appeal decision in summary proceedings discussed above. In short, this Court held that the unconditional qualification of a group of products as medicinal products, without any individual evaluation taking place, was not in line with EU case law. The Court in particular referred to paragraph 68 of the conclusion of the Advocate General. The Advocate General stated, inter alia, that the insidious extension of the scope of the Medicinal Product Directive by including products that do not belong there, would harm the free movement of goods. Therefore, until an individual assessment of a borderline product based on the Hecht-Pharma criteria has taken place, the public health authorities are not allowed to take any enforcement measures. No appeal was filed by IGZ against the present decision of The Hague District Court, but we were informed that where necessary, IGZ will proceed to enforcement in individual cases.
If and when your company receives a warning letter from IGZ announcing enforcement measures because of its borderline status, please bear in mind the following. Before considering any change in the product like the lowering of its active substance or even its withdrawal from the market, the public authorities should have unconditionally qualified the product at stake as a medicinal product. If and when this situation is not clear, make sure to obtain professional advice to properly deal with the health authorities.